New Schools Network critical of low approval rate

Are they benefiting the disadvantaged?


The DfE confirmed on Monday that it has signed off 79 proposals from private groups seeking to open new free schools, which are prohibited from being run directly for profit. This is made up of 55 new mainstream and 16-19 Free Schools and 13 new University Technical Colleges (UTCs).

These institutions will open in addition to the 24 that opened as part of a pilot wave of free schools last month.

Previous figures haven’t included the new UTCs which, apparently, are now being classed as Free schools, although the process leading to their establishment began with the last Labour government. Under the UTC plans, pupils will be able to opt out of mainstream schools at the age of 14 to enrol at a technical college and learn a trade.

The institutions –opening from 2012 onwards – will teach a range of courses including engineering, motor skills and business, alongside mainstream subjects.

Other Free schools in the pipeline include  so called  ‘Studio’ schools ,  ‘Alternative Providers’ and  ‘Special Free schools’ . It is thought that around 300 Free schools will be up and running by the end of this Parliament with over half of all Secondary schools by then  with Academy status.

As for London, at least 50 free schools will open in Londonwithin four years, according to the Education Secretary. He said tens of millions of pounds will also be spent on creating new schools or classrooms in boroughs where there is a shortage of places such as in Kingston, Sutton and Richmond in west London.

As part of the education expansion plans, “super-grammars” could also be created by expanding existing grammar schools.

Eight of the 24 free schools which opened last month are in London and Mr Gove believes they will prove hugely popular with parents and pupils.

What is sometimes forgotten in all this is just how many apparently good bids have failed to make the grade, and have not been approved by the DFE, leaving some parents groups confused and frustrated. Groups have complained to the Department and the New Schools Network believing that their bids have failed not because they have not met the quality threshold but because of a funding shortage.  Interestingly, the New Schools Network, a charity helping develop free school proposals, has been critical of the relatively low number of applications approved. “The speed at which the number of Free Schools is growing illustrates the interest that exists in improving local education,” Rachel Wolf, the charity’s director, and former Gove aide, said in a statement. “However we believe too few have been approved. Based on the calibre and volume of proposals we have seen, we think that the DfE has been over cautious in some of their assessments.   “As the policy develops we hope to see a significant increase in the number of groups being approved,” she added.

There has been plenty of debate about what kind of pupils these schools will ultimately serve, with some competing claims in recent weeks about the original 24 Free Schools now open.

A recent Conservative Party press release claimed that “Half of the 24 schools are located in the most deprived 30 per cent of communities in the country”

This seems contradict a statement made by the Guardian arguing that “Research shows that the 10-minute commuting area around the first wave of free schools is dominated by middle-class households”. The data from both sources makes for some interesting reading, and it is easy to see why reports on free schools have been somewhat contradictory The Department for Education, on whose research the Conservatives based their claims, and the research company hired by The Guardian, CACI, use very different methods to analyse the economic prosperity of the areas surrounding the new Free Schools.

CACI used as their basic unit of measure the area around the school within a 10 minute commute by car in rush hour. As a result, the number of households included in their analysis varies massively from school to school – from only 648 households investigated in relation to Priors Free School in Warwickshire to 102,611 included in relation to ARK Atwood Academy, Westminster.  The Department for Education uses a more traditional unit, the Lower Super Output Area (LSOA). LSOAs are rigid geographical units with an average population of 1,500 people and are a common unit of measurement used by the Department for Education when dealing with the area surrounding primary schools. Not only are their understanding of catchment areas different, but so is the way in which they measure relative economic wealth.  The Department for Education uses a measure of economic prosperity called an Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), which combines a number of indicators, both social and economic, in order to place households and districts in relation to the rest of the country. CACI provides a lot of data on the individual schools, including the average house price and the average income bracket. Unsurprisingly, these differences lead to rather different results .


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